Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sierra Sampler

Of course, I saw more than Greater Sage-Grouse during my recent stint in the Sierras. Here are a few belated photos and comments for your enjoyment.

Mountain Chickadees are the vermin of the Sierras. And to think, years ago, I fantasized of seeing one. Now I realize that they're basically Black-capped Chickadees with fancy makeup and scratchy throats.

The second greatest avian highlight after the grouse was our successful Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch expedition. Last year, one a hike to Gaylor Lake, I saw two distant flyovers. This year, they were still distant--that's right, about twelve feet distant! There were two families hanging around the perimeter of this gorgeous alpine lake.

The juveniles were uniformly clad in a distasteful gray and polluted the tundra air with their strident supplications for food. On top of this, they were irresistibly cute.

The Sierras are home to some hardcore scenery. Our group did a hike to Cathedral Lake and Tressider Peak. It was beautiful, strenuous, dangerous, and profoundly lacking in birds. The steep, several hundred yard-long descent down a glacier provided a thrill that fully compensated for the paucity of the winged ones.

This American White Pelican flew by while we were observing the sage grouse which I described in a previous post. Later, we snagged the grouse, Wilson's Snipe, and Wilson's Phalarope in the same scope field. Versatility!

Sunday, August 21, 2011


It is humiliating, but I must admit it: birding can get in the way of other activies. Like hiking. So, to remedy this chronic problem, I left my binoculars and big camera in the car this morning while I climbed San Jacinto Peak. It's a decent hike--sixteen miles roundtrip with abundant elevation gain to reach the powerful peak at 10,834 feet. I've dreamed of doing the hike for years, but it was only until this summer that I overcame the mental barriers and kicked the mountain's backside.

Here is the story of my ascent.

5:44--I slam the car door, boldly grip my staff, and head up the trail.
5:44:15--I realize I forgot my hat.
5:45--I start up the trail, for real this time...
6:15--The annoying little pain in my left heel (a pebble? a pine needle?) becomes so unbearable that I take off my shoe to rectify the situation. I am horrified to find a blister forming.
6:33--I come around a bend and flush a covey of Mountain Quail out of the trail.
6:45--I reach Saddle Junction, the top of the Devil's Slide Trail, 2.5 miles into the hike.
7:25--A flash of black and white through the trees--my first Clark's Nutsacker of the hike.
8:00--I reach Wellman Divide, 5.5 miles into the climb. I celebrate by devouring a Clif bar.
9:15--THE PEAK! It's windy, rugged, and viciously gorgeous.

10:00--After puttering around the peak for forty-five minutes (few birds--Rock Wren, Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, Anna's Hummingbird), I begin the descent.
11:15--The sharp pain in my left heel with every step becomes more and more excruciating. Investigation reveals that the blister is half-dollar sized. And, to top it off, one is forming on my right heel. At least I'm symmetrical.
11:38--Birds are much less obvious in the heat of midday, but I score my first Red-breasted Nuthatch of the hike.
11:45--I return to Saddle Junction, right on schedule.
12:35--The parking lot. Shoes OFF.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Watch It X--Phish

I looked up and saw him coming. Part of me cringed, but another part anticipated a new encounter with him, one of the hobos who haunts Newport Pier. His obvious state of inebriation and can of Mike's Harder Lemonade in hand promised a memorable experience. Sure enough, he sidled up and asked me what I was looking at. "A Pigeon Guillemot," I replied, not mentioning that it was found on Sunday by Brian Daniels or that it was the first juvenile recorded in the county.

I offered him a view through my scope, but he declined. "I can see it fine, man, and mah eyes are already swimmin'. Prolly not a hot idea." Then, he began rambling.

"Ever heard of a band called Phish? No, not F-I-S-H. P-H-I-S-H. Yeaaah, duuuuude, they rock. I mean, they ROCK the HOUSE. Like, every one of those dudes has a PhD in his instrument. I went to a concert once and I was like, 'Wow.' And they were like 'Wow.' And I was like, 'WOW.' And they was like, 'Wow.' And I was like, 'Uhhh,' And they were like, 'WOOOOOOWWW!' You really gotta look them up, brother."

So, I did. And they're pretty good.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Aug 18, 2011 6:00 AM - 7:55 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: cloudy, misty, light breeze, cool. Pre-work seawatch from the end of Newport Pier. I stupidly keep leaving home at the same time even though the sun rises later, so I took a ten-minute nap in the car before heading out because it was still so dark. Nathaniel the crazy hobo, quite inebriated this morning, came by and rambled on for about fifteen minutes to me about various topics before continuing on in search of more alcohol.
29 species (+1 other taxa)

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) 8 Unusual--a tight flock heading south offshore.
Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) 1
Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 4
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 220
Black-vented Shearwater (Puffinus opisthomelas) 13
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 26
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) 2
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 200
Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) 1
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) 68
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 11
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 21
Sanderling (Calidris alba) 5
Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) 2
Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) 3
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 235
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 475
California Gull (Larus californicus) 1
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 12
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) 1
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) 5
jaeger sp. (Stercorarius sp. (jaeger sp.)) 1 A smallish, very dark jaeger chasing a couple terns...probably a Parasitic, but meeeehhhh.
Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba) 1 Continuing juvenile found by Brian Daniels on Saturday, 8/13. It was hanging out just a hundred or two feet beyond the breakers just maybe 40 yards north of the pier. Excellent views. Most of the time, it was sleeping, but toward the end it was swimming around more and diving. Apparently the first record of a juvenile for the county.
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 1
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 70
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 3
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 4
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 1
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 1

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pineapple Bruises

Every birder celebrates his new birds differently; I am no exception. Two timeless rituals accompany my lifers. Actually, both have specific, if not relatively recent, origin, but both have become honored tradition. The first, bestowing a hearty slug to the arm of the companion lucky enough to add a new lifer, originated at the 2009 Young Birder's Conference in San Diego. The second, that of butchering and devouring a hapless pineapple in celebration of another species defeated, was conceived by my old mate Tim last summer as we rampaged the countryside of California. Sadly, I have come to a point in my life where lifers have become about as scarce as affordable gas prices.

One thorn remained in my side from last summer. My aforementioned friend Tim abandoned me last August and journeyed to Lake Crowley, slaying the mythical Greater Sage-Grouse without my permission. The wound festered all winter, becoming dreadfully infected and oozing pus at ever-increasing rates as time wore on. Finally, I decided the situation needed to be rectified.

I spent the entirety of last week camping on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas with a group from my church, and, as fortune would have it, Lake Crowley lay a mere half-hour to the south. Accompanied by Alison, my companion of a romantic nature, I embarked before dawn on Monday, bound for the lake.

Girlfriend birding is much like ordinary birding, except one receives a considerably greater amount of flak about missing turns, misidentifying birds, or being hungry forty minutes after lunch than one would birding with comrade. Additionally, there are other inevitable distractions, but I won't dwell on those. I hadn't really researched the layout of the lake, so it took a couple drives up and down the highway and a brief interrogation of a marina worker at the south end of the lake until we found our way to the proper location, Benton Crossing Road at the northern end of the lake. There, we found dire warnings of the imminent presence of our treacherous quarry and knew that the hunt was now in full throttle.

My strategy had been to aimlessly drive around until we found the grouse along a road somewhere--at least, that is how my precursor Tim had succeeded. After almost an hour of futile driving, a new strategy seemed to be in order. None was immediately obvious, but my scheming was interrupted by a roadside Yellow-headed Blackbird. Rolling down the windows, I remarked something about how this spot smelled productive and threw my trusty Taurus into park. It was tranquil and picturesque--a small stream meandered through a verdant cow pasture. Sage ringed the edges of the pasture. The Yellow-headed Blackbird, however, seemed to be a false indicator. There was nothing of interest, unless cows, Brewer's Blackbirds, and Cliff Swallows could be considered interesting. About to turn back to the car, I took one last scan of the field and noticed a grouse-like lump among the cows.

And it was, indeed, a Greater Sage-Grouse, or, more accurately, six Greater Sage-Grouse. I turned and daintily punched Alison's arm. She retaliated with a slug more intense by a factor of at least ten. This bit of business out of the way, we ventured out into the pasture for better looks, braving sharp sage branches, cow patties, and the potentially belligerent cows themselves. We suffered nothing more serious than lightly soiled feet, and in return enjoyed the company of sixteen Greater Sage-Grouse at close range.

This location seems to be a haunt for these grouse--I'd imagine they enjoy grazing among the cows for the succulent grass along the stream.

We saw the birds from Owen River Road near the one-lane bridge, which can be accessed by taking Pit Road north from Benton Crossing Road, turning west on Owen River Road, and then turning north again on Owen River Road.

And no, we did not forget the second tradition. After an hour of grouse appreciation, we returned to our steed the Taurus and unearthed a pineapple from the disastrously messy backseat. The unfortunate pineapple again and again tasted the bite of my pocketknife, and we, in turn, gnawed on the doomed fruit's juicy flesh. The old wound has been drained, cleaned, and bandaged.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Watch It IX--Whaling

Even though whaling is nearly extinct and universally frowned upon, I engaged in some yesterday. Actually, it was purely accidental--I was tracking a Cassin's Auklet when a pair of giant nostrils rolled up out of the sea in the background. I see whales from shore fairly often, but it is always a treat to see a Blue Whale on the way to work.

I continue to be impressed with each day's individuality. The sea is not static; there is always something different from the previous week. Yesterday, the difference was dramatic: jaegers and Pink-footed Shearwaters suddenly appearing in numbers, Elegant Terns again abundant to the point of irritation, and my first Common Tern and Black-bellied Plover seen from the pier this summer. Regularly birding the same location has its value.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Aug 4, 2011 5:50 AM - 7:55 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: mostly clear, with patchy fog/cloud banks (it was sunny most of the time I was there; however, while driving down, I drove through some really dense fog banks, and towards the end the sun was concealed), calm, cool. It's always a good day when you see a Blue Whale on the way to work. Also, a few notables in the avian department--a bunch of jaegers, a huge influx in PFSH numbers, first COTE of the summer, and a lot more ELTE than the last few weeks.
29 species (+1 other taxa)

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) 1
Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 35 Where did they come all come from?? After seeing one or two every seawatch all summer, they were all over the place--this number is very conservative. There could have easily been 50+ present. There was a large, strung-out feeding frenzy of dolphins with WEGU, ELTE, and BRPE attending, and many of the PFSH were zooming around that, some of them landing on the water to check it out.
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 425
Black-vented Shearwater (Puffinus opisthomelas) 4
Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania) 5
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 20
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) 4
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 400 Including many juveniles.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) 1
Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) 4 First I've seen on the beach this summer.
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) 34
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 8
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 12
Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) 32
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 200
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 700 More than usual--there were lots of birds offshore sitting on the water and flying around.
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 3
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) 1
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) 3
Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) 800
Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) 2
Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus) 7 Literally the first bird I saw through my scope was a light-morph POJA. The first I've seen from the pier this summer, and strange that there were so many. Definitely different individuals--I had one light morph adult with full tail spoons, three light morph subadults chasing a single tern, and a couple dark morphs. Quite the show.
jaeger sp. (Stercorarius sp. (jaeger sp.)) 2
Common Murre (Uria aalge) 1 One flying "north"--looked to be in basic-type plumage. Pretty distant.
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 11 Back down to regular numbers...
Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) 2 A couple, the first spotted on the water--I hardly ever spot alcids at rest. The other was a fly-by.
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 40
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 2
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 3
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 2

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Watch It VIII

Yes, I did go seawatching last week, and yes, I did delay for nearly a whole week before before posting my report! The shame is overwhelming; I solemnly promise not to let it happen again, at least not until this week.

It was an entirely ordinary day, except for the deluge of northbound Cassin's Auklets. I carefully tallied forty-eight. To my knowledge, this is a record count for the county. The Birds of Orange County lists a high count of twenty-five, and eBird, though more up-to-date, shows a previous high count of thirty. Interesting.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Jul 29, 2011 5:45 AM - 7:50 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: cloudy, strong breeze (W, ~10 mph), cool (~65?F). Seawatching before work. Productive--I think the wind might have been blowing birds closer to shore, because a lot of the birds were closer to shore than normal (e.g., PFSH and SOSH visible with the naked eye, and CAAU just a couple hundred yards off the end of the pier). Or maybe it was a coincidence. Also had one distant whale sp. about a mile out--just saw it briefly while I was tracking a flock of CAAU flying by.
27 species (+1 other taxa)

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) 2
Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 1
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 325 Perhaps slightly more than normal, including many very close birds (relatively speaking, of course).
Black-vented Shearwater (Puffinus opisthomelas) 1
Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania) 11
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 14
Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) 1 The first I've observed at the pier this summer.
cormorant sp. (Phalacrocorax sp.) 3
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 250
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) 1 Fly-by bird with a broken leg hanging down.
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) 59 Big influx, including many juveniles--the first juvenile shorebirds (other than local breeders) I've seen this summer. Most were south of the pier, and most left once people starting showing up.
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 2
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 28
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 300
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) 1 Strangely, the first I've had at the pier this summer. A raggedy adult-cycle north of the pier on the beach.
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 400
California Gull (Larus californicus) 2
Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) 2
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 5
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) 2
Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) 85
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 48 By far the most I've ever seen in one seawatch--almost every time I scanned, I had at least one or two small flocks going "north." Many were exceptionally close to shore. It's entirely possible that numbers like these are always present, it's just that they stick farther out where thy can't be seen.
Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) 2
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 60
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 1
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 1
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) 1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 6